Soul Man

November 15, 2012

By now, you’re probably familiar with the high-concept idea behind Soul Man, but just in case you missed it, we’ll recap: A jerky white kid (C.Thomas Howell) gets accepted at Harvard Law School and sees a fat future in front of him. Then his rich daddy (James B. Sikking) cuts off the boy’s allowance, which means the kid must find his own method of finance.

Every possibility is painstakingly explored, and darned if it doesn’t turn out that the best idea is for Howell to blacken his skin and apply for a full scholarship awarded to the outstanding black student from California. (Interestingly enough, nowhere in the film’s litany of money schemes is it suggested that this little creep might work to earn his tuition.)

So Howell takes these handy extra-strength tanning tablets that turn his skin deep brown, and he perms his hair. And he’s in Harvard.

This concept may sound distasteful, and, well, that’s about how it plays. The makers of the film, writer Carol Black and director Steve Miner, clearly mean it to be taken as an anti-racist film. Howell sees the racial prejudice directed at him, grows up a little bit, and falls in love with a fellow student (Rae Dawn Chong) who happens to be black.

Most of that doesn’t wash. The intentions may be right, but most of the film is callous buffoonery, and a trivialization of its subject.

Admittedly in some of this callous buffoonery are a few laughs. Howell meets a vixenish student (Melora Harden) who’s looking for the obligatory multiracial college affair. After they sleep together, she sighs, “I felt 400 years of anger and oppression in every pelvic thrust.”

Late in the film there’s a farcical scene in which Howell’s parents come to visit from Los Angeles the same time his two girlfriends show up. It’s a well-managed scene; too bad the rest of the movie doesn’t have the same snap.

James Earl Jones does a John Houseman number as the tough law professor; it’s an unbearably hammy performance that culminates, in the film’s queasiest scene, with Jones admitting that Howell might really have learned a lot about the black experience. This is a little hard to believe.

The only notable performance, outside of Chong’s appealing professionalism, is given in a very small role by Ron Reagan (not to be confused with the other actor who has that name). Young Reagan is as relaxed and convincing here as in his occasional TV appearances, and gives every indication that he might be a likable future player.

That small bright spot aside, Soul Man is a pretty negligible affair—and the title is the essence of irony. This is a film that might have a few laughs, but it’s certainly got no soul.

First published in the Herald, October 30, 1986

I completely forgot that Ron Reagan ever took a stab at acting, let alone that I wrote of his work approvingly. Howell and Chong later married. Carol Black was one of the key people behind “The Wonder Years,” which leads me to suspect there might be more going on in this movie than it seemed at the time, although I clearly didn’t hate it.

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Commando

July 4, 2012

After muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger’s initial forays into the cinema—namely, Pumping Iron and Stay Hungry, in which he basically played himself—people wondered just how this awesomely constructed fellow with the thick German accent would ever find his niche in films.

Well, perhaps not that many people wondered. In fact, Schwarzenegger was not taken seriously at all—although the Hollywood folk who laughed at him way back when may be kicking themselves now.

Schwarzenegger seems to know what he’s capable of, and he knows how to package himself (if you’ve ever seen him on talk shows, you know he’s not stupid). He’s been bankable since the first Conan movie, but his real success may lie not with that centuries-old character but with a very hip, modern kind of action hero.

In last year’s The Terminator and the current Commando Schwarzenegger is playing almost the same role, with just a few technical differences (the Terminator was not human; the Commando is, so we’re told). The two films share a sardonic sense of humor that approaches nihilism: Arnold cracks jokes as he walks away from the bad guys he’s just blown away.

In Commando, that’s quite a sizable number of corpses. Arnold mows down more enemies than you can shake a stick at, all the while catching a few scratches on his own considerable torso.

He’s mad because the bad guys (led by Dan Hedaya) have kidnapped his daughter to blackmail him into performing a Third World assassination. Arnold escapes their clutches by dropping out of the bottom of a plane just as it’s taking off (this may be a movie first). He then has to find the villains within a few hours, and the trail leads him to a ritzy Los Angeles shopping mall (great shootout), a sleazy motel room, and finally a secluded island fortress where Arnold paints his body and wipes out the final couple hundred adversaries.

His last confrontation is with an old Army buddy who was drummed out of Arnold’s fighting unit. He’s played by Vernon Wells, who displayed formidable fearsomeness as the mad, Mohawked Wez in The Road Warrior. He still makes a good emissary of evil.

Commando is certainly nothing great—not even on a pulpy level, as The Terminator, a lively movie, was—but it does have a sense of humor about itself. Schwarzenegger is not quite as believable as a human being as he was as an android, and they’ve given him too many lines of dialogue.

To the film’s credit, there is a rather nice love interest for the big guy in the figure of Rae Dawn Chong, as a stewardess accidentally drawn into Arnold’s chase. Much of the time she’s crouching behind tables, shrieking as Schwarzenegger dukes it out with someone, but she also gets to hang around and get off some one-liners. When Arnold is mixing it up with a particularly nasty opponent, Chong makes the pointed aside, “These guys eat too much red meat.” The people who cooked up Commando share those dining habits.

First published in the Herald, October 10, 1985

Still early in the Schwarzenegger breakthrough—early enough so that he’s working with directors like Mark Lester. I recall this one having far too many awkward lines—you just want him to shut up and be Arnold.


Beat Street

June 13, 2012

Considering the fact that its subject matter is new and hip, Beat Street is a surprisingly traditional film. It reworks the tried-and-true formula of poor street kids who dream of using their artistic talent as a means of breaking out of the urban inferno.

In this instance, the ghetto is in New York, and the ticket to freedom is no longer the ability to play the violin or sing like a bird. These kids are break dancers, graffiti artists, and rappers (rapping, defined by the handy press kit glossary, is “talking rhythmically with and over the instrumental breaks in records”).

These methods of expression may be new and unusual, but the basic story is the same. The kids have dreams and hopes, which are fulfilled and squashed in various ways during the story. Some of the kids want to dance; one is a budding rapper; and another expresses himself by spray-painting subway trains.

Director Stan Lathan never quite licks the problems of an overly formulaic scenario, but I did like his refusal to prettify the setting and characters. None of the actors (except Rae Dawn Chong) has much screen presence, which works two ways: It contributes to the sense of reality that the filmmakers are clearly shooting for, but it also makes the story rather less compelling than it ought to be.

The real interest in Beat Street lies in the break dancing, which involves human beings whirling and spinning around on the ground in positions and at speeds that confound anatomical reality. The best scene in the movie occurs at a big dance, when the plot just shuts down for about 10 minutes and the camera watches some of these amazing performers do their thing It’s exhilarating, and nothing else in the movie can match it for excitement.

Beat Street was co-produced by Harry Belafonte, who developed the project from its inception. Apparently Belafonte insisted on being true to the subject, and not glitzing up the soundtrack with easily accessible pop tunes (in the movie business these days, a pre-digested, commercial soundtrack album sometimes comes before the movie—as though the film itself were an afterthought).

Belafonte is to be commended for the honorable intentions behind Beat Street. It’s a shame the screenplay hews so close to cliché.

First published in the Herald, June 1984

Gotta love that rap definition. And hey, I may not have loved Stan Lathan’s work here, but the man is due some career recognition; not only has he directed everything from “Sanford and Son” to “Hill Street Blues” to “Def Comedy Jam,” he’s also the father of Sanaa Lathan.